Upon entering the world of medicinal mushrooms, you will eventually come across one very commonly asked question, what is better - the fruiting body or mycelium?
There are so many brands offering medicinal mushroom powders, extracts and capsules that it can be hard to differentiate and make an informed decision on what is best for you. The thing is, not all of these mushroom-based products exist along the same playing field.
In this article we will cover
- Mushroom anatomy
- The health benefits of medicinal mushrooms
- Fruiting body vs. mycelium
- Polysaccharide testing
- What to look for when choosing a medicinal mushroom extract
- The SuperFeast way
The Basics - Mushroom Anatomy
A medicinal mushroom is simply just one plant part of a fungal organism, referred to as a basidiomycete. Basidiomycetes have three distinct parts that develop throughout their lifecycle: spore, mycelium, and mushroom.
The mycelium is the actual living network of the fungus, the portion of the herb that in nature moves through the ground and the wood to help the mushroom spread (mycelium is a lot like a plant's roots, and has a symbiotic relationship with many root systems in natural environments). The mycelium produces enzymes that break down the plant material within its growth radius and recycles it into beneficial compounds that return to the soil. The mycelium is woven into whatever substrate (the plant material) it has chosen to feed on and from there can produce the fruiting body.
The fruiting body is the mushroom's reproductive structure, it's the way of birthing new life. It is the part that most of us would recognise as the mushroom proper: the bit that sticks out of the tree or pops out of the ground. The fruiting body serves as a structure that can release billions of spores that will find a suitable growing medium, germinate and begin to form what is called hyphae. The hyphae is a branching, filamentous structure that continues to grow outwards in a dendritic pattern, seeking water and nutrients from its surrounding environment and fusing to form mycelium.
As the mycelium continues to grow and spread, producing fruiting bodies that then release more spores and the cycle continues. Before we go on, it’s important to reiterate that although the fruiting body is composed of mycelium, this does not make them the same thing, as is the case with medicinal mushroom supplements!
Health Benefits & Active Compounds
The Asian medical system has long-held reverence for mushrooms as functional foods and powerful herbs, and the first known herbal pharmacopoeia in China, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, includes many species of mushrooms still known today. From a TCM perspective, mushrooms generally act as Qi tonics and function to tonify the Lung and Spleen channels, though many also support other organs like the Liver, Heart and Kidneys. Through the Western lens, all medicinal mushrooms contain complex polysaccharides (specifically beta-glucans) that positively challenge the immune system, strengthening and modulating its function.
To dive a little deeper into this, read our article ‘What are Beta-Glucans & How Do They Activate Immunity?’.
They have also been shown to improve those in a state of deficiency, reducing fatigue, improving energy and endurance and regulating blood sugar levels. Other key active compounds researched in medicinal mushrooms include triterpenoids, ergosterol and statins. They have been shown to exhibit lipid-lowering, antioxidant, anti-tumour, and anti-inflammatory effects, inhibit histamine release and Liver protective effects.
So What's Better - Fruiting Body or Mycelium?
To reiterate, fruiting body-based mushroom products are made from the visible part of the mushroom, which contains the spores necessary for reproduction. They are produced by extracting the beneficial compounds from the fruiting body, typically using hot water or alcohol, and then processing them into a powder or extract.
One of the key benefits of fruiting body-based supplements is that they have a long history of traditional use. For example, Reishi mushroom fruiting bodies have been used for thousands of years to support the immune system, promote longevity, and improve overall health. Because of this long history of use, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence supporting the effectiveness of fruiting body-based supplements.
Mycelium-based mushroom supplements, on the other hand, are made from the thread-like network of structures that make up the body of the mushroom. Mycelium is typically grown on a substrate such as grain or rice, which is then harvested and processed into a powder or extract. The practice of growing mycelium rice substrates is still being explored and the research on supplements utilising this technology is still emerging. Mycelium grown on grain may have a different nutrient composition compared to the mycelium network found in nature, therefore any variability in growing conditions, substrate quality and extraction methods can have a significant impact on the bioactive compounds found within the supplement. This can be perceived in both a positive and negative light.
It is argued that the dense network of fine filaments called hyphae within mycelium enhances its bioavailability of nutrients and bioactive compounds as it interacts with its environment, absorbing and metabolising nutrients and compounds from its surroundings. Whilst this is true, most mycelium-based supplements are grown on grain-based substrates, leaving the mycelium only starch to interact with. Myceliated grain often contains up to 60-70% grain, reducing the percentage of active compounds within the final product,
A lot of the research based on mycelium is also heavily focused on mycelium grown through liquid fermentation. This involves growing the mycelium in a liquid medium instead of a grain substrate in which the mycelium is filtered out, dried, and then extracted.
*At SuperFeast, we primarily work with the fruiting bodies as opposed to the mycelium for all our medicinal mushrooms, however, we do have one exception, Cordyceps mushroom. Wild cordyceps (C. sinensis) are rare and extremely expensive to source. Due to the prohibitive cost of wild cordyceps, the Chinese developed cordyceps mycelium which they now grow in liquid fermentation tanks. This pure mycelium product is known as Cs-4 and this is what we use at SuperFeast. A large body of research has demonstrated that Cs-4 has a similar medicinal profile and active compounds found in wild cordyceps. Several years of compositional analysis, as well as clinical trials, have demonstrated that Cs-4 acts medicinally in a manner consistent with that of wild-harvested cordyceps.
A Note On Polysaccharides
There is currently no approved test to measure the beta-glucan content present in a medicinal mushroom, so the beta-glucan content of these products is often falsely recorded. Producers are unable to distinguish the actual percentage of beta-glucans present in the mushroom; measurements are instead recorded to show the mushrooms' total polysaccharide level instead.
This reading is misleading as tests cannot identify the starches (polysaccharides and beta-glucans) produced by the cereal growing medium (such as grain and rice) and those produced by the actual mushroom mycelium that is ingesting the grain. This has led to a high volume of medicinal mushroom products circulating throughout the market that are not what they say they are.
What To Consider When Choosing a Medicinal Mushroom Product
Colour - Mushroom extracts exhibit a range of colours depending on the particular mushroom, whereas myceliated grain offers a more consistent appearance. This is attributed to the uniform colour of the mycelium itself and the grain it thrives upon. Typically, myceliated grains are lighter in colour, looking more like the grain it was grown upon. For example, reishi mushroom is a deep reddish brown colour, therefore the dried extract should also be a deep hue. If it’s not, then it has been grown on grain.
Taste - Your medicinal mushroom should taste like medicinal mushrooms! This usually means they will be bitter, due to the bitter-tasting active compound called triterpenes.
So What Is The SuperFeast Way?
Thanks to modern advancements in scientific research, we know both the mycelium and the fruiting body have merit regarding health and healing. However, we prefer to use the fruiting body for our medicinal mushroom herbal extract powders as this is the portion of the mushroom that has been used as a medicinal throughout the Taoist tonic herb tradition, the system from which we derive our inspiration for SuperFeast.
We feel the actions of the fruiting body are superior to those of the mycelium, however, this is not the argument we choose to focus on when comparing the two parts of the mushroom. It is not so much about the efficacy of mycelium, but rather the modern sourcing and processing of this mushroom medium.
We work primarily with Taoist tonic herbs (and yes medicinal mushrooms are considered tonic herbs within the Taoist tradition) and therefore source all our medicinal mushrooms and tonic herbs from the pristine mountain regions of China and its surrounds (Tibet, Inner Mongolia). We do so as this is the spiritual homeland or original place of the herbs we love to work with.
Sourcing in this way is a method called Dì Dào (地道), a practice deeply rooted in tradition and respect for the herb and the land it grows on. You can read more about Dì Dào (地道) on our blog - ‘Dì Dào (地道) - Sourcing From The Spiritual Homeland’ as well as listen to our podcast episode ‘Superior Dì Dào 地道) Sourcing From China with Mason Taylor (Episode #162)’.